Charlotte airport under threat of takeover
North Carolina legislators moved Tuesday toward a takeover of one of the country's busiest airports by pulling control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport away from the city officials who have run it since the 1930s.
The state Senate voted 33-16 along party lines to give control of the country's eighth-busiest airport to a new, regional airport authority run primarily by representatives of five surrounding counties, the governor and legislative leaders.
Another Senate vote is expected Wednesday before the measure moves to the House. Because the bill is being treated as a local issue, Gov. Pat McCrory would neither sign it into law nor have a chance to veto it. The former Charlotte mayor has urged his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly to slow down and study the impact of a takeover but did not say he opposed the idea.
An outspoken advocate of the measure said the move was needed because the airport is an important statewide asset. That was never more evident than with the near completion of an intermodal freight distribution network linking planes, rail and East Coast ports, said Sen. Robert Rucho, R-Mecklenburg. The airport-based terminal is expected to create thousands of jobs.
The airport "is a key component to the economic well-being of the entire state," Rucho said.
Opponents argued that having the state take control of a city asset could affect the ability of other communities to borrow to build municipal services like water systems. Majority Republicans opted not to wait until Treasurer Janet Cowell could report on whether transferring control could harm investors who hold about $800 million in airport bonds.
"We're playing with fire. We're playing with real money here," said Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake.
Charlotte was the eighth-busiest U.S. airport in 2012 by number of passengers boarded through last August, according to the U.S Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Its 13.4 million passenger boardings represented a 5 percent increase over the first eight months of 2011.
Charlotte is the largest hub airport for US Airways, with more than 640 daily flights to nearly 140 destinations around the country and in Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, Mexico and Latin America. US Airways last month announced plans to merge with American Airlines to form the world's largest air carrier.
The airport takeover proposal is one outgrowth of the strange and fatal case of 16-year-old Delvonte Tisdale of Charlotte. The high school student stole past Charlotte's airport security in 2010 and climbed into the wheel well of a US Airways flight bound for Boston. His body was found the following day along the jet approach to Boston's airport.
The death prompted a city review of airport security that led to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police taking command instead of airport authorities. That led last year to months of bitter infighting among police, airport and other city officials, The Charlotte Observer reported on Sunday.
Policing costs at the airport doubled to $5.5 million in fiscal year 2013, The Observer reported. US Airways grew concerned about having to pay more for police since those costs are paid by the airline through fees, the newspaper reported.
Policing may have been cheaper before Charlotte police took over, "but every passenger was in danger. Instead of Mr. Tisdale jumping that fence it could have been a terrorist," said Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg.